GOP needs to reframe IRS scandal

The Internal Revenue Service scandal needs reframing pronto for Republicans to realize any political gains from it. The current framing is the same tired old “Republican suits versus Democrat suits in Congress” — the one that almost no one in the rest of America is interested in anymore. The focus is on Washington and Capitol Hill, so there are few tragic figures to generate sympathy. Ironically, the Washington framing makes President Obama perhaps the most worthy recipient of sympathy. He was clearly let down by his men and women and gets off as a victim. And there are no Republican figures likely to get any sympathy. 

The push to reframe this scandal must begin by putting a face on the citizens whose rights to form organizations were trampled. Get the investigation back to Cincinnati and the heartland where we can see the abuses of federal power and the impacts on ordinary people’s lives. Enough with the suits in Congress.

Michigan Rep. Dave Camp, the chief spear-carrier for the Republican side, at least in the media, is a great guy, I am sure. My many friends and clients in Michigan — one of my favorite states — are always very high on Camp. But his role as top talking head is one of the problems in the current framing. He makes it all about partisan gotcha politics, as most congressmen are apt to do these days, and the average American just tunes out. There certainly is no sympathy for Camp. He’s just a partisan soldier doing what soldiers do. And because the Congress has taken this road, people don’t have any sense that the rights of ordinary Americans were trampled — good people that could be portrayed as victims deserving of sympathy.

The polls confirm that Americans don’t know what to think about the topic under the current framing. In the most recent polls, by Pew and USA Today, the percentage of poll respondents saying they are unsure about the matter is growing, and is clearly higher than earlier polling on the topic. And, frankly, the public polling belies the lack of clarity in the current frame. Is this mainly about what the president knew and when? Are other senior White officials involved? Is this about the IRS as a whole or just a few rogue agents? Was this done for political reasons or not? My point is that none of the questions focus at all on those who were done wrong in the Cincinnati area — the real victims.

Rather than continuing to hammer the White House with ineffectual attacks, Camp would be well served by traveling to Cincinnati, making his presence know there, meeting with victims and then bringing the best ones and their stories back to Washington so they can replace him as the face of the effort. If there ever was a scandal that merited a truth-seeking, setting-the-record-straight swift-boat type of media campaign, it would be this one. Someone needs to step up and finger the bad guys clearly and champion their victims. It’s melodramatic, but would be far more effective in exploitation of this scandal than the current tack.

In a larger sense, I am asking Republicans to make clear that they stand squarely on the side of rule of law and fair treatment for all. It should be made clear that this matters far more than any type of short-term partisan political advantage. In fact, this scandal, if its current framing is not altered, will not have any impact on the 2014 midterm elections. People will have forgotten, and it will be just another brick in the wall of what passes for partisan politics in this day and age. But if someone puts the faces of the victims in play, the issue could still have some legs next year.

Hill is a pollster who has worked for Republican campaigns and causes since 1984.